The recession has dramatically demonstrated just how interconnected we are. As the housing crisis hit the calm waters of people's daily lives it sent waves that traveled over the nation and quickly reached far shores around the world. Unfortunately fear about the future is contagious. People hold back in their spending and local economies shrink like cashmere in the dryer.
We have given the idea of money incredible power. Great acts of altruism are accomplished through philanthropy that brings hope and comfort where there had been none. But in its darker incarnations money creates empires capable of destroying ecosystems and wasting the health of whole populations. Money fathered the industry of war.
On the individual level, lack of enough money causes us tremendous pain. We have been indoctrinated to believe that without the special printed paper that comes from any nation's mint we cannot obtain the goods and services needed for a good life. It doesn't matter if they are rupees, quetzales, pula, yen, rand, euros or dollars, without enough in their pockets people resign themselves to dissatisfaction, poverty and suffering.
Under the current economic circumstances, it is more urgent than ever that we shun the limiting beliefs we may have about our power to acquire what we need and look beyond our wallets for other forms of currency. There is a well of creativity that can be tapped to bring more abundance to people and communities. This is a good time to experiment with ways to re-invent commerce and expand our potential to acquire the things we need and want. Here are a few ideas that have worked.
In the early '80s while living in Durango, Colorado I made my living by practicing therapeutic massage. A town of ski bums, mountain bikers and climbers, people were just getting by from what they could earned during our winter and summer tourist seasons. Massage for many was a luxury they could not afford.
Wanting to increase my ability to acquire what I needed, I started offering to trade professional massage in exchange for goods and services. Who would not want a massage to relieve stress or to alleviate the pains of hard mountain biking or skiing? My trade activity grew rapidly. The owner of the local bookstore, an avid mountain biker, let me charge books which were paid for with massage. A fellow called to ask if I'd like a cord of firewood delivered to my cabin door before the first snows. I jokingly accused my dentist of being over zealous in finding work to do in my mouth to which she admitted wanting more massage. People began to pay debts to others by transferring massages to them.
This bartering grew to include others throughout town. There was no formal structure, just agreements between people, "I'll give you my services in exchange for your goods, sound good?" People were able to do business without cash just by keeping the agreements.
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Eventually someone created a register of available bartering partners, making it possible to trade with people one did not previously know. As if to prove the success of the movement, the organizer of the register was contacted by the IRS with instructions to oblige barterers to pay income tax on the value of the trade. After a bit of eye-rolling, people continued the tax-free, people-to-people trading.
A more formal extension of bartering is the creation of "local currency" as a community-based system of exchange. One of the better known experiments with local currency has been going on since the recession of 1991 in Ithaca, New York. "Ithaca Hours" can be used to buy goods and services in Ithaca. The movement began when vendors at the local farmer's market decided to accept hours for products. It soon expanded widely to include many businesses. Eventually Ithaca Hours received serious attention from the central bank in China that sent a high level official to Ithaca to study it. The E.F. Schumacher Society, founded to carry on the ideas of the visionary economist and author of Small is Beautiful, promotes such community-based experiments.
Once you get out of the box of thinking you need money for all business there is no limit to the kinds of cash-free services that are possible as Alec Keefer demonstrated in Portland, Oregon. Alec dropped out of high school to read heady books in the basement of a house he and friends squatted. A true believer in the power of permaculture to reshape societies into sustainable systems, listening to Alec's analysis of how to transform society's institutions is as good as or better than talking with any futurist sociologist.
In his early twenties, Alec founded the Anarchist Post Office in Portland, a town where biking is a major mode of transportation. It worked like this. People dropped off their mail at boxes in participating coffee shops, stores and restaurants. Volunteer mail carriers delivered letters with destinations that happened to be on their way as they biked around town. No postage was paid. People just did the favor as they did their errands.
We are fundamentally creative beings capable of composing great symphonies and building hospitals to save lives. These times are testing us, encouraging us to remember the breadth of our better natures. We are being pushed to seize new opportunities for cooperation and trust, and to make a stronger commitment to the common good.
If we go into that realm where fear has to wait outside, we will encounter the courage and excitement to try new ways to meet our needs in cooperation with others. As more people experiment with creating innovative systems it will become clear that the crisis has presented us with an opportunity to refashion commerce to better support each other and help businesses thrive where we live. If that excitement were to become contagious, we could very well find ourselves creating prosperity for many while at the same time liberating ourselves from fear. Keep the faith.